Today, we have the pleasure of chatting with Sterling Collins of Hew Woodworking about his path toward woodworking and product creation, what inspires and drives him, and we learn what it's like to build up a small business from the ground up.
Sterling Collins formed his woodworking practice in 2013. He primarily makes furniture and small wares, and focuses on creating quality pieces to last through the ebb and flows of trends and daily use. Cascadian Dry Goods proudly stocks Hew small wares and we are excited to share with you our recent conversation with the maker.
What is the most important thing you've learned since starting your business?
Try harder. Do better. Learn from your mistakes, that’s what they’re there for. Keep learning. Don’t compromise. Stick to your plan. Know when to scrap your plan. Make more. Get in the arena and see what happens.
Is there any other craft or skill you would love to master?
There are a lot actually. Especially right now, I’m looking to expand my small wares line and that means my mind is everywhere right now, I’m not to an editing point yet. I have too many ideas.
As an architect I’ve been educated and trained as a generalist, where it’s less about a medium or material and more about concepts and ideas and how you go about implementing those and their implications on your surroundings. During my upbringing I was always involved with various media and processes, drawing, painting, making weird little machine things in my room.
I don’t tend to seek permission to try new things, I have more of a “why not” mindset. I always want to do it all, whether that’s actually possible is another question. Not knowing how to do something or not having the skill-set, for me, has never been a satisfactory reason to not pursue something, it’s never been a wall. There is always a way to do it, whether on your own, figuring it out - learning how, researching or getting help from people more experienced than yourself. Maker communities are great because everyone wants to share their experiences, so help is never far away. But it makes me look at my design work and making things and ask how can I do that, not if this or that material is capable.
I want to learn to throw ceramics, I have lots of ideas for ceramic pieces and my knowledge and experience with ceramics is limited up to this point. My skills are weaker than my desire (time seems to do that.) I’d also really love to get into metal spinning; I just need to fashion a few tools and I can be up and running with that on my lathe. That is coming next year. I want to incorporate some weaving components into my small wares, I’ll keep that part a little hush for now, but there are some projects that are in the pipeline with that too. Not so much in the realm of textiles but more functional objects. So master, maybe not, but dabble in, get a good working knowledge of, be able to navigate multiple landscapes– definitely.
If you were magically given an extra 2 hours each day, how would you use it?
That would certainly be handy. I would like to think that an extra two hours would allow me to do so much more….that’s an extra month every year! But if I really think about it, I would take that for myself, sleep a little more, actually shoot for that 8 hours; spend more time with my wife. I think balance is important. It would allow me to be better in the finite amount of time I have each day. Maybe it would allow me to be more productive that way.
What is the best part about working for yourself? What is the worst part?
Let’s start with the worst, so we can finish on a high note. It’s stressful and it’s not easy. You work a lot of hours, you’re hustling, you don’t always know what you’re doing and when something goes wrong it’s all on you. No safety nets. No one to blame but yourself.
The best things, you don’t always know what you’re doing – which means you can do whatever you want – no preconceived limitations, everything that goes right, is on you too. You feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment that makes all those long hours and mistakes worth it. Working for yourself is the hardest and most rewarding thing you can do. I’d rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable. In my old profession, I worked A LOT. But it’s more fun seeing my wife when she is awake. Now I still work A LOT, but I work differently and it gives me a certain sense of pride that I didn’t have working for someone else, you see where all your efforts go. They don’t just result in a paycheck; there are so many more intangible rewards. Everything is on the line all the time when you’re a small business; it’s all life and death. It’s a rush, it’s stressful and it’s awesome when you do well.
Seeing someone with your work, or hearing how they’ve been using it, or the excitement they have to gift it, there is just so much potential there. It’s such a gratifying thing. The feeling of someone seeing your work, measuring it’s value to them and saying with their hard earned money – thanks for your effort, you did a good job, I want to support you. Few things are better.
What's your favorite material to work with and why?
Wood. I have a deep affection for woodwork, as a process, as a material, and as a final object. To me there is a romance involved with working with your hands, something that can be divorced (at least to me,) in some other materials, I’m thinking more man-made materials and methods of working. At least for me, some materials have a certain coldness or sterility that I don’t associate with wood. Wood will change over time, it’s not a static or inanimate thing. It’ll react to its environment, it’ll react to use – show signs of wear, and you can sometimes see it change. In this respect there is a dialogue. It’s not a piece of plastic that just lasts forever no matter what, unchanged. It needs care, needs to be thoughtfully crafted and thoughtfully used. It has simultaneously a strength and fragility that I find beautiful. It’s also relatable; you can see trees all around you, especially here in the NW. You know where it comes from, even if rather abstractly, you are conscience of it and how it’s all around you. Now think about the life cycle of plastic…yep wood is way better.
What is the 'why' for your business? What are you in this for, what drives you to do your work every day?
Making and designing is really all I know. There is a certain level of pride and accomplishment that comes with making a new piece of work, the feeling is addicting but it’s also fleeting. You always have to keep going, striving to do better, grow as a maker. I’d say the ‘why’ for my business is pretty selfish actually. I just want to make things, have that feeling and have fun. I used to practice architecture, which for me is and was great, however, since I worked on super and mega tall towers there was a certain component that was missing. It felt one-sided in terms of designing and waiting years before there was “something” tangible, before people would touch it. The scale for me lacked an intimacy. I’ve always been attracted to small details, how we interact with the built environment, and how they mutually inform each other. This is where the work I do now sits. Small-scale works allow you to really hone in, really creating a dialogue between the object and the user.
How did your childhood influence your current work?
I’ve always been involved with making things (or taking apart things – read as breaking things under the guise of taking apart). I’ve drawn all my life and used to paint quite a bit as well. I’ve always made things as well. Growing up my parents really supported creative outlets, I was always enrolled in art lessons growing up – I have very fond memories there. So I’ve never felt there to be any creative limitations, whether it was from the support I had or a certain sense of naivety, I’ve always felt confident enough to pursue creative practices, whether design, art or craft based. Later my training in architecture really bolstered my sense of confidence – that is ultimately the foundation I work from now. The skills and modes of thought that were instilled building a thick skin, being malleable, problem solving, integrating multiple needs or view points - those are all integral for either owning a small business or incorporated in my own practice.
Describe a typical day at work.
As a young business my day really varies, I’m still finding where my niche is and what I like. Which makes it fun, there isn’t a lot of monotony but it can make things a little hectic sometimes. Some days I’m just camping out on the lathe, turning private label bowls or my own products to fulfill an order. Other days I’m working on a custom project or furniture piece. Some nights I’m teaching up at OCAC, or designing, or carving…I don’t really have “typical days”.
As my business grows and my product line becomes more established I anticipate this will change a little and settle to a degree, at least fall more into a rhythm. I tend to be a little manic in my making, going really heavy for a few days then backing off a bit. I’m working on finding the rhythm. I feel I have too much to explore in between what would be called the “typical” part of my day that it keeps it all constantly in flux. Which is fun. I try to take Sundays off to try to turn it off a bit, spend time with my wife, get out a bit. I’d say I’m a little obsessed though, even when it seems I’m just watching a movie or something, I’m thinking of my work. You’re always pulling from your environment or identifying problems. I think about my work all the time, often when I’m not visibly working, I’m day dreaming – designing in my head. Allowing yourself to daydream is important.
Cascadian Dry Goods stocks a variety of Hew products including the most beautiful salt cellar in the world, butter dishes in walnut or maple, elegant and precise butter spreaders and hors d'oeuvres forks, and a maple mortar + pestle, but you can see Sterling's full lineup over at www.hewwoodworking.com. If you enjoyed the photos in this post, don't forget to follow @hewwoodworking on Instagram. Plus, after hearing about some of Sterling's ideas for the future, don't you want an insider's peek? Sterling's work is precise as well as functional, and any kitchen would benefit from a Hew product or two.